Heywood told friend he was in trouble shortly before he died


BRITISH BUSINESSMAN Neil Heywood told a friend shortly before his death that he had left documents about the financial affairs of purged Communist Party cadre Bo Xilai with a lawyer in the UK as an “insurance policy” should anything happen to him.

Mr Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, is “strongly suspected” of murdering Mr Heywood in November in the Chinese city of Chongqing, while Mr Bo, who was aiming for the ruling standing committee of the politburo, is being investigated for serious disciplinary violations.

Mr Bo’s dismissal from the party’s central committee and politburo has caused the biggest political upset in decades in China, just months before a crucial, once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the 18th party congress.

The same friend said Mr Heywood had told him he was “in trouble” and had been called to Chongqing by representatives of Mr Bo’s family, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Mr Heywood was unable to reach any of his usual contacts after arriving in Chongqing. Hours later he was dead, of alcohol poisoning, according to an initial police report, although his family said he was teetotal and had suffered a heart attack. The government has since said it believes he was murdered by Mr Bo’s wife and her family orderly.

The state-run media has been urging cadres to back Mr Bo’s dismissal. Chinese president Hu Jintao and other party bosses, meanwhile, are trying to stop further faction fights within the leadership, as senior figures jostle to gain advantage from Mr Bo’s departure.

The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a front-page commentary calling for “firm support for the decision of the Communist Party’s central committee”, and saying everything that was happening was “according to the law”.

The official People’s Liberation Army newspaper struck a similar chord, stressing unity and the support of all branches of the armed forces.

The expulsion of Mr Bo has been compared to previous purges in the Communist Party, such as the removal of Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu in 2007 and the mysterious aircraft crash in 1971 which killed Lin Biao, amid rumours that he was planning a coup to depose Mao Zedong.

However, a difference this time is that the Bo Xilai affair has been playing out on popular microblog services such as Weibo, which have hundreds of millions of users in China. “That is changing the game,” said Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based commentator. “I haven’t seen anything this big, and now the party is coming out with messages in the People’s Daily and the army newspaper that the crisis has passed and they are talking about unity.

“They wouldn’t be able to do this so forcefully if they didn’t have some consensus at the top.”

Kerry Brown, head of the Asia programme at Chatham House, said he believed this was exactly what happened when a political elite with too much power for its own good was combined with an underworld of family interests, vested interests and unaccountable networks.

“The end result: a real mess like this. The leadership now has to use this case to show that they are serious about rule of law, about the need for internal reform, and about changing the system. Otherwise, the legitimacy of this leadership transition is looking very shaky,” said Dr Brown.